Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Model To Date - Part 1 of 2

The following was written before my 100 day viva in order to clarify things for myself. It is basically a more long-winded and detailed version of my viva presentation.

The problem with the Enlightenment...

Ever since the enlightenment our understanding of how we exist and act within the world has remained much the same. Cartesian coordinates, Newtonian physics and the mind-body dichotomy have defined the ‘commonsense’ paradigm amongst rational and logical human beings.

Post enlightenment thinking describes us being in the world much like any other object, with the exception that we possess that ‘something else’ that bestows us with sentience, that is a mind with the ability to perceive the world around us and allowing us to act appropriately. This ‘something else’ has been described in many ways including the religious concept of the soul, the ‘ghost in the machine,’ or Descartes’ notion of the pineal gland, ‘angel in the head’ or ‘animal spirits.’ When explaining his famous ‘I think therefore I am’ Descartes defined us a ‘thing which thinks.’ By this he does not mean that our body thinks but rather that the mind/soul/knowledge/understanding exists as a substance that lives within but is also separable from the substance of body.

This idea, referred to as Cartesian Dualism, has dominated science and philosophy ever since it was conceived in the 17th Century to the point where it seems intuitively true. The ‘stuff’ of the mind appears to be extremely different from the content of the world. Yet, on deeper examination this idea appears incomplete, relying on the pineal gland to process the input from our senses and produce this mind-substance, or on an ‘angel in the head’ to whisper to us the knowledge and meaning of the content of our senses. 

Enter Neuroscience

Neurologist Antonio Damasio attempted to refute this assumption in his book ‘Descartes’ Error’ (1994). Here, Damasio outlines his alternative take on the mind-body problem, using a series of examples of people with brain injuries or diseases to show how feelings and emotions are entirely dependent on body-state. 

Damasio’s model consists of three major points.
  1. The brain and the body consist of an indissociable organism, integrated by means of biochemical and neural circuits.
  2. The organism interacts with it’s environment as a whole, neither the body nor the brain has sole responsibility for this
  3. The mind is a process which occurs inside the organism, mental phenomena can only be understood in the context of the organism’s interaction with an environment.

The third point is the most important and the most profound. To use Damasio’s language ‘The physiological operations that we call mind are derived from the structural and functional ensemble.’ Damasio clarifies this in his third book ‘Looking For Spinoza’ (2003) where he outlines his ‘nesting principle' which relies on the analogy of the ‘homeostatic tree.’ At the trunk of the tree are basic metabolic processes and immune responses, things which rely on subtle chemical differences within our bodies such as digesting food or fighting off the cold. This then separates into branches containing basic pain and pleasure behaviours, or the reactions of approach and withdrawal from a situation or environment. Further up we get drives and motivations also referred to as appetites such as hunger, thirst, sex, etc. In the upper branches we get emotions, which Damasio separates into background emotions, primary emotions and finally social emotions.

As you can see, as we go up the tree the processes get more complex and nuanced. The simpler processes are nested within the more complex ones and all are dependent and affective on the others. Phenomena which occur within the environment have an affect on cells within the body (which can be separated out into our senses, although it is important to note that these are part of a linguistic game, more on this later) which cause a change in body state in the same way subtle chemical processes within the body have an affect on  body state. The components of the homeostatic tree create a map our body state letting us know how we’re getting on in the world. In this model the idea of separating the mind from the body becomes an absurdity.

Perceiving Reality

Cartesian Dualism, seen as the commonsense model, tells us that there are two clear worlds; external objective reality and internal subjective consciousness. The objective world of stuff exists outside us in the three dimensions of Cartesian coordinates and our internal consciousness perceives this through our senses and internalises it so we can make judgements about how to act in the world. Despite the myriad of possible responses of consciousness there exists a definitively objective and universal externality from which everyone’s subjectivity must derive. Reason and logic always refer to this externality whereas emotions and feelings reside within, inspired by our perception of objective reality.

Damasio fundamentally challenges this idea in ‘Descartes’ Error,’ suggesting that without emotion reason cannot come about, and in fact emotion is evolutionarily prior to reason. This is supported by the work of psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist in his book ‘The Master and his Emissary.’

Here, again using a large body of research conducted on people with brain disorders, McGilchrist resurrects the idea of the divided brain; a popularised way of describing modes of thinking as either logical or emotional, left-brain and right-brain thinking. Despite being widely exaggerated and seized by management training pseudo-science, the lateralisation of brain function reveals much about our interface with reality.

McGilchrist uses a range of language to describe the differences between these two modes of thinking, belying a complexity much greater than ‘reason versus emotion.’ The key part of McGilchrist’s model, at least for my own thesis, is that of the understanding of the whole against the understanding of the part, or abstraction against metaphor. Abstraction removes things from their context and examines them as a discrete and autonomous objects. Metaphor refers to contextualisation, looking at the whole picture of reality in a relational and interconnected fashion. 

McGilchrist describes two modes of thinking, “[One allows] things to be present to us in all their embodied particularity, with all their changeability and part of a whole which is forever in flux... The other was to step outside the flow of experience and ‘experience’ our experience in a special way: to re-present the world in a form that is less truthful, but apparently clearer, and therefore cast in a form which is more useful for manipulation of the world...explicit, abstracted, compartmentalised, static, lifeless.”

Relating back to Damasio’s statement that emotion precedes reason, McGilchrist proffers that metaphor precedes abstraction. Art, so often seen as a frivolous and expendable endeavor, is vital for our understanding and knowledge of the world around us. Reason and logic simply augments this feeling of the world, as McGilchrist suggests creating a re-presentation of the world, affording us a perceived ontological security that our feelings and emotions are correct or letting us know that they’re not and they need to be altered. From here we can therefore suggest that what we consider ‘objective reality’ is in fact a construct we create to shore up our own subjective understanding of the world, a fine-tuning device for our body-state map.

While the mind/body distinction remains useful linguistically, if we are to proceed with any kind of profound psychological or sociological model, we must abandon it as an analogy.

So if it doesn’t work like that, how does it work?

When describing Damasio’s model I suggested that things occur to us as affects on cells within the body, through what we refer to as the senses, which alter our map of our body state. Philosophy refers to these affects as phenomena, and indeed an entire branch of the field has flourished around this idea, the field of phenomenology.

Martin Heidegger makes a key distinction between ‘objects’ and ‘things,’ the key difference being that objects become things when we can ascribe particular phenomena to them and thus we understand them, or have knowledge of them, through their use. The idea that objects are known by way of their utilisation also entails that they can only be known through their relationship with other objects and phenomena, which in turn are connected to further objects and phenomena. A hammer relates to a nail which relates to a wall which relates to a picture frame which relates to an image which relates to a place which relates to happiness etc, etc. Sets of relationships are described as projects in that they contain projections of desired phenomena which will satisfy a want or need.

Our world, according to Heidegger, is therefore comprised of projects pointing toward a desired way of being. The deployment of these projects and the positioning of the objects contained therein is referred to as building. Building is not just the construction of a physical structure, but the positioning of objects to allow a mode of living directed at producing a specific pattern of phenomena, which Heidegger refers to as dwelling.

Here we can see McGilchrist’s model at work. We can break a project down into it’s discrete chunks and consider, for example, a hammer on it’s own. But behind this consideration lies an understanding of what a hammer is used for which invokes thoughts and memories of other discrete objects, for example nails, walls and picture frames. But in lived experience a hammer could just as easily be deployed for different projects. It could be used as a paperweight, doorstop or a weapon. The object itself does not define ‘thingness,’ but rather lived experience and utilisation.

1 comment:

  1. as before excellent. It suggests that there is possibly a link between Lacanian psychiatry as exemplified in the work of Darius Leader for example, Leader D, What is Madness? Hamish Hamilton, 2011, and the concept of the human condition being unwell by continuing to insist of this separation of inside and outside as a solution to democratic social life. Architecture would become a therapeutic strategy for living although in some cases it would mean the lunatics taking over the asylum!